Imagine that you were blind. How could you get an idea of the scale and shape of a cathedral or the layout of a castle? In recent years, 3D models and town plans have been appearing in tourist spots around the world, not only giving visually-impaired people the opportunity to engage with buildings the rest of us can understand with our eyes, but allowing everyone to experience buildings in a tactile way and take delight in the joys of the miniature.

Maybe it’s because I’m a person of limited stature from a small family who comes from a small town, but I have never really been attracted to ‘the biggest’ or ‘the most impressive’ in terms of size. “Small but perfectly-formed” is something my mother often said (she’s even shorter than I am) and I grew up with the idea that “small is beautiful”. Whatever the reason, I have a definite preference for the miniature.

Miniature cityscape in Nijmegen

My favourite sculpture in Nijmegen isn’t an impressive statue or imposing monolith, it’s an intricately-sculpted imaginary cityscape, full of famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, all jostling together in a historical theme park a tourist could only dream of visiting. It’s a sculpture you can spend ages looking at, trying to identify the famous places. I find it very attractive how the buildings are put together on a hill, all higgledy-piggledy like some of the most beautiful and intriguing ancient villages in France, full of alleyways and unexpected corners. I can just imagine myself visiting it and exploring.

Nijmegen sculpture Cor Litjens
The detailed sculpture of an imaginary city with a stunning blue polished stone backdrop
Nijmegen sculpture Cor Litjens
This is the other side of the sculpture with a city against rough unpolished stone.

I loved this piece from the moment I saw it, so I was delighted to discover that there are more pieces by the same artist in Nijmegen’s Valkhof Museum. I instantly recognised the style when I saw them and my Dutch friend confirmed that they were indeed by the same artist. Not only that, but he is a local artist, Cor Litjens, born in Nijmegen and educated at the HAN University of Applied Sciences. For a close-up photo of the sculpture above, visit or visit Cor Litjens’ own website to see more of his work.

3D town plans of Bordeaux

While I was visiting Bordeaux, I crossed the Place Pey-Berland a couple of times and noticed a small model, but didn’t stop to investigate more closely. Fortunately, a local blog, Invisible Bordeaux has investigated and written in English about the 3 bronze orientation maps that the sculptor François Didier produced for Bordeaux, describing the process of making them.

I did miss the 3D map in Bordeaux, but a couple of years ago, the first tactile model of a building I ever saw was in Ypres (Ieper in Dutch).

Model of a building in Ypres / Ieper
Tactile model of a building in Ypres (Ieper) in Belgium

Neanysu, an imaginary city

Not quite the same thing as the orientation maps, but to be honest, I very rarely look up to compare the model with the actual building. For me, the joy of these 3D maps or models is the tactile beauty of the bronze and the patina added by all the people who have run their hands over the details. I love to get down right down to the level of a model and look at up close, looking through windows and arches if I can. So when an artist goes on to create something along the same lines from his own imagination, that makes me just as happy, even if it’s not functional. It seems that once bitten by the love of the miniature, it can take hold and inspire an artist. Invisible Bordeaux has also written about another exhibition by François Didier in which he built an imaginary ancient city, Neanysa. It sounds beautiful. I would have loved to have seen it.

A model of a Roman burial place in the Musée d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux

In fact, I did see a similar tiny model of a Roman burial area in the Musée d’Aquitaine. It’s incredibly detailed. Absolutely stunning!

Roman graves, Museum of Aquitaine
Detailed model of a Roman burial place, in the Musée d’Aquitaine
Roman graves, Museum of Aquitaine
Close-up of a detailed model of a Roman burial place, in the Musée d’Aquitaine

Doll’s houses and tiny rooms

I suppose the fascination of these miniatures is that they give you the same feeling that a doll’s house gives, eloquently described in an article in The Independent by Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, inspired by a doll’s house in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. I’m looking forward to reading that one!

Another miniature-in-a-museum I came across in the last couple of months was a model of a roman villa, in the Senhouse Roman Museum in Maryport in Cumbria (UK). Once again, I tried my very best to get as close as I could, not entirely successfully.

Roman scrolls - model
A model of a Roman office at the Senhouse Museum in Maryport

Macro life – the power is in the detail

Another of the places we visited in Bordeaux was the new botanical gardens. Inside a building were tall tropical plants, trees and cacti. Not for me the tropical giants, though. For me the thing that fascinated me most was looking into the mouth of a carnivorous plant through a strong magnifying glass and seeing the tiny hairs inside. For photos, visit Invisible Bordeaux (again!).

Mini landart – not the big picture

If I was in any doubt as to whether I am a ‘big picture’ sort of person or the sort of person who enjoys detail, I only have to look at the result of a land art workshop  that I took part in last year. Others were making grand designs covering metres of space.

Landart, Leur / Wijchen, 2014
Bird’s nest and tree root landart, Leur, 2014
Landart, Leur / Wijchen, 2014
Bird’s nest landart for a giant bird

Meanwhile, I was building a miniature version of the motte and bailey castle shown on a nearby information board. It was no higher than my knees.

At the end of the day, my favourite pieces of work were the small stones covered in clay with intricate designs carved with a fingernail, laid out on a nearby bench with a row of daisies (click on the image for a closer look).

I suppose I am just a miniaturist at heart. Even when I’m walking in the mountains, I enjoy the view, but I spend most of my time looking at the details of the flowers and vegetation. What about you? Are you more impressed by monumental art, the biggest things in the world, or the tiny things, the incredibly small and the things you have to get your reading glasses out to see?

Added to the Expat Life Linky for October 2015. Click on the link to read other expat and travel bloggers’ posts submitted this month.

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